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Andrew Roberts on Churchill vs. the Spanish Flu

Octavian Report: Can you tell us what made Churchill, in your view, so effective as a leader during crisis?

Andrew Roberts: I think really what we’re looking at in Churchill, with regards to today, is the power of resilience. The way in which all the way through his life, but particularly during the Second World War, he was an exemplar of resilience. The idea that you can be hit again and again, but you always get up and carry on fighting. And that’s something that you see before the First World War in his life, certainly a lot during the First World War, then in the interwar years with regard to appeasement and the rise of the Nazis, and then of course all the way through the Second World War. It didn’t end there, it also continues into the Cold War. So you have somebody who, again and again, personifies this vital human instinct of resilience.

OR: Is there something about Churchill that allowed him to get “black swans” like COVID right? Is it something that can be learned?

Roberts: He didn’t foresee the pandemics of his own lifetime. The Spanish Flu is the great pandemic crisis of his life, which he didn’t foresee any more than anybody else did. But he did foresee the rise of Germany before the First World War as being an existential threat to European liberty and before the Second World War. Now, of course, after the Second World War, in the great “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri on the 5th of March 1946, he also was the first person in the West to warn against the rise of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe. So you have therefore an extraordinary series of tremendously prescient moments. Very often he was the only person actually making these warnings and that is not, of course, something that we saw in this pandemic. Our politicians are not scientists. Very few people ever saw this coming.

OR: What do you think a leader in a crisis like a pandemic should do?

Roberts: The first thing I think they should do is level with the people. What Churchill found, especially in the Second World War, was that people can take any amount of bad news so long as you’re honest with them and so long as they know that you’re giving them the bad news straight and that you’re not sugarcoating anything there. And that was something that, of course, he made very clear in the first speech that he made as Prime Minister on the 13th of May, 1940 — his famous “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech. He was not promising anything at all apart from these four things, which of course nobody wants to go through. That’s a key thing. Straightforward honesty as much as humanly possible, right from the beginning.

The second thing is to trust the science. He was a great believer in science and scientists. He believed that it would help win the Second World War. He was personally very friendly with scientists. He was always interested in science. There were various other aspects in the United Kingdom with regard to sweeping powers for the police, for example, and the discussion over whether or not to have food rationing. Issues with regards to volunteering — encouraging people to volunteer for the emergency services and health services. And these all can be seen in Winston Churchill’s leadership in 1940 and 1941. Boris Johnson, who is himself a biographer of Winston Churchill, took a lot of leaves out of the Churchill playbook.

OR: Are there any Churchills operating today? Any Chamberlains?

Roberts: I do see some Churchillian leadership qualities, actually, in Boris Johnson. I think the way in which he’s leveled with the public is excellent and there are, as I mentioned earlier, these other aspects of leadership that he’s very much taking — deliberately so — from Churchill.

But overall it strikes me that the politicians and the statesmen  followed the events rather than leading them. It’s very difficult, obviously, in something as vicious and unpredictable as the coronavirus, to actually lead events. I was not hugely impressed by world leadership and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed in the pre-coronavirus period. I think the best way to describe my stance on this is unsurprised.

OR: Were you also completely unsurprised by the lack of preparedness for the pandemic?

Roberts: There were a couple of aspects of it. First of all, from until January early February, this came completely unexpectedly. Secondly, China is a totalitarian country, and there’s a limit to the amount that you can believe what they tell you with regard to timing and patient statistics. If one assumes that there is a political aspect in everything happens over there, which there certainly has been since their revolution in the late 1940’s, it’s not necessarily the case that you can believe everything that they’ve said. In that sense, Western leaders do have a slight excuse for being behind the curve.

OR: Can you walk us through Churchill’s plague years? Was the Spanish Flu the first pandemic that he weathered?

Roberts: It wasn’t his first one. That was the Russian Flu of 1891 when he was 15 and at Harrow. It killed a million people in Western Europe in 1891 and 1892. He was, on this occasion, moved to write the one poem he ever wrote. A 16-stanza poem, titled “Influenza,” in which he charts the beginning of the flu in Asia and Russia and the way it came from the east and slowly but surely infected every country in Western Europe, including Britain. It was a good poem, surprisingly. It was an awful lot better than the kind of juvenilia one might expect from a 15-year-old schoolboy.

The real killer, as you mentioned earlier, was of course the Spanish Flu, which was a horrific pandemic. No fewer than 25 million people died of the disease in its first five weeks. Eventually it was estimated to have killed probably over 50 million. There’s a big historical discussion about quite how many people died. A remarkable statistic comes from that terrible pandemic, which is that of the 116,000 American military deaths in World War I, no fewer than 63,000 — which is over 54 percent — were due to disease, mainly Spanish Flu. Flu deaths outnumber those who died in battle.

OR: Why do you think the Spanish Flu has been, until recently, almost lost to history for most people, given that it had such an impact on the world?

Roberts: I think one of the reasons might’ve been that we’ve only really got two books on the subject. Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider was about the Spanish Flu and how it changed the world. She goes into all of the various social and economic aspects of the flu. Then there’s Catharine Arnold’s book, Pandemic 1918, and that also is very interesting about what happened in society during the flu. But other than that, there’s absolutely virtually nothing written on the subject. Laura Spinney reckons the Indian Nationalist movement grew up as part of the reaction against the British authorities who were unable to contain Spanish Flu. So even things that happened 30 years later she puts down to this extraordinary epidemic.

OR: As Secretary of War, how did Churchill respond to the Spanish Flu when it started to ravage the U.K.?

Roberts: We were very fortunate that the worst of it didn’t come until the war was likely to be won. Had it happened to come earlier, there’s no knowing what would have happened. We might’ve even been forced into an early, indecisive, and somewhat ignoble peace with Germany. It definitely had huge ramifications.

You saw a lot of British soldiers who were being demobbed by Churchill die, but if he hadn’t demobbed them, they’d have stayed in camp and probably have died just the same as if they went home. And there was a good deal of self-isolation that took place in 1918 and 1919. And he was, of course, having to send troops all around the Empire. That, which they hadn’t really factored in, also increased the amount of devastation that it caused (but not knowingly). These were issues that were always with him. And he thought about them a good deal. He made a speech in March of 1944, which was a really very powerful discussion about the importance of what he called the discoveries of healing science and how they had to be as widely used by as many people as possible. He said: “The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman. Simply on the ground, that is the enemy. And it must be in fact, just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as well as to the most important mansion.”

OR: How important to surviving crises is his ability to rally other nations?

Roberts: This is, I suppose, the difference between the invisible killer that we’re facing today and the all-too-visible killer of the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht. International cooperation was absolutely essential to winning the Second World War. American involvement was absolutely essential, as was Russian. It couldn’t have been won otherwise. So in that sense, yes, of course it was and what Churchill had learned from a life in politics, from the First World War, and from his own writings (especially his biography of the Duke of Marlborough) was all about coalition-building and international cooperation and getting things done that a single nation couldn’t do.

So relative to this present pandemic, we’ve seen the generosity that one country can give another when it comes to ventilators. Every country is swapping information as much as possible (or at least every free country seems to be). And the other key aspect of course is keeping the world economy going as much as humanly possible under the circumstances. That’s something else that the United States was actually essential to: when it came to the Second World War, it was very much a war that ultimately was being paid on your dollar.

OR: You’re also the author of a fabulous biography of Napoleon, who had his own brush with the plague in the Middle East. How did he handle it?

Roberts: When he was involved in the Egyptian campaign, a good number of his men went down with the plague in Cairo in 1799. He showed his tremendous courage in going into the plague hospitals, at one point helping a plague victim be moved from one part of the hospital to a better bed in another part of the hospital, which of course was shocking to his lieutenant. The various marshals and generals around him begged him not to do it. He knew it would be a great — I don’t like to use the word PR stunt, in such a historic moment — but nonetheless, you know what I’m getting at. And it certainly was. It was hugely successful. There were paintings painted of it at the time, morale went up. It demystified the plague to a degree and it allowed other people to have the guts to go and help these poor people themselves. He was incredibly lucky not to have caught it. If he had, he probably would have died. So there is this sense that the Napoleon was willing to take extraordinary personal risk in order to make his men better.